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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Colonial Warfare pt. 26

We fought for France, now for ourselves

Chapter 1, The "Phony War" (November 1954-July 1955)

October, Eve of a War

In October 1954, France was living at the slow pace of the Fourth Republic, which had borrowed a great deal from the Third. Politics always took place in sealed offices; elected officials in the provinces rushed from banquets to inaugurations and from hollow speeches to obscure disputes. Rene Coty was in the Elysee Palace, and Pierre Mendes-France was premier in the Hotel Matignon. For nine years, Charles de Gaulle, having withdrawn from public affairs, had been biding his time in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Guy Mollet, his spectacles at the tip of his nose, watched the omnipotent SFIO, one of the ancestors of the present-day Parti Socialiste, from the corner of his eye. The Communists were still shaken up over the death of Stalin, which had occurred twenty months earlier. Nasser was the strongman in Cairo, and his revolution of Arab nationalism was continuing.

Eisenhower was in the White House. He had just named a black man to be general of the U.S. Army's Air Force. He was the first. In London, Admiral Mountbatten was named First Sea Lord. In Stockholm, the Nobel Prize committee gave its award to a war writer, Ernest Hemingway. The decision was poorly received. Italian troops had just reentered Trieste, which the Yugoslavs had returned to them. Scenes of jubilation. In Paris, the Franco-German accords on the Saar were signed. People everywhere wanted to settle the accounts of World War n.

But how many dark spots were on the planet! In the USSR, the gulag did not die with Stalin; in Africa, decolonization was yet to come; whole stretches of Asia wallowed in poverty and underdevelopment. In China, the Communists had taken power five years earlier. The term "Third World" appeared and circulated to designate these impoverished zones. Franco still held Spain under his sway. And, in the United States, McCarthyism was raging. Batista was elected in Cuba; he would very quickly become a fierce dictator.

Officially, France was at peace. On the other side of the Mediterranean, in Carthage in July 1954, Pierre Mendes-France had promised an evolution toward autonomy for Tunisia and Morocco, which had been on the brink of a general rebellion for three years. The true war, the war in Indochina, was over. Bigeard and many emaciated, defeated paratrooper officers left the Viet Minh prison camps. They were reflecting on the causes of the military defeat of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, a terrible lesson they were not ready to forget.

The weekend of late October 1954 was deadly: thirty-four perished. The highways were beginning to kill in great numbers. France was confronting the problems of a nation at peace that was beginning to grow richer. Its victims, and its defeats, were now in sports stadiums. In the Parc des Princes, Puig Aubert had just led the XIII of France [a soccer team] to a victory over New Zealand. The stabilization of prices, achieved under the premiership of Antoine Pinay in 1952, was a major event. The old specter of price inflation that had so profoundly marked the postwar period was vanishing. This fact reduced "the diplomatic and colonial catastrophes to the rank of political mishaps, and thus comforted the French, who intended to take advantage of the fruits of the expansion once they had got on their feet by consolidating their purchasing power"(Rioux 1990).

Cultural news remained plentiful in 1954, however. People were reading the latest Prix Goncourt, Les Mandarins by Sirnone de Beauvoir, which was a fresco of a social milieu she knew by heart. That year, Francoise Sagan, a young new writer from a good family, published her first novel, whose title was borrowed from Paul Eluard: Bonjour tristesse. Jean Giono, who pub- lished Voyage en ltalie, was received into the Academie Goncourt. Nor was Albert Camus absent from that landscape. A collection of his texts con- tributed to the debate of ideas of the moment (Aauelles II), and a long prose text, haunted by flashes of insight and by worry, also appeared (L 'Ete). In October 1954, in darkened theaters film lovers could see rouchez pas au grisbi, by the great Jacques Becker, who was in a certain sense the heir to Jean Renoir; rant qu'il y aura des hommes, by Fred Zinnemann; Roman Holiday, by WIlliam Wyler, with Audrey Hepburn; On the Waterfront, by Elia Kazan; and Dial M for Murder, by Alfred Hitchcock.

On October 31 the deputies packed their bags, preparing to return to Paris, where the parliamentary session was set to reopen in two days. Pierre Mendes-France, the man who had made peace in Indochina, was preparing to leave for the United States. He was dreaming of reshuffling his cabinet. The previous week he had offered five Socialists a place in his government. The French stock market immediately dropped, then rose again, reassured. Edgar Faure would remain at Finances until the budget vote.

All Saint's Day 1954 began with a symbol. Very far away, in Pondicherry, the sun rose on a new flag. It was green, orange, and white. At sunset on the previous day, the French flag, still waving on the largest of the four trading posts, had been removed. The empire of French India no longer existed. Everything had gone well in Pondicherry.

The Outburst

Between midnight and two o'clock a.m. on November 1, 1954, Algeria was awakened by explosions. From Constantinois to Oranie, fires and commando attacks revealed the existence of a concerted, coordinated move- ment. In Algiers, Boufarik, Boulra, Batna, Khenchela, and on and on, thirty almost simultaneous attacks on military or police targets were perpetrated.

Very quickly, Francois Mitterrand, minister of the interior, placed three companies of state security police (CRS), that is, six hundred men, at the disposal of the Algerian general government; they flew from Paris in the early afternoon. A first battalion of paratroopers moved in under the command of Colonel Ducoumeau. Three others followed the next day. In fact, the war secretary was already in place in Algiers for a different reason: he was also a deputy and mayor of the city. This was Jacques Chevallier. The SFIO daily, Le Populaire, was upset: "The attacks came precisely at a time when France has a government whose comprehensive policy in North Africa is likely to bring calm everywhere there has been tension." The fact is, on that day, it was a hard fall for Paris. Hadn't Francois Mitterrand come back from his trip to Algeria some weeks earlier with the feeling that things were going better there?

The insurrection caused the death of seven people. The murder of the teacher Guy Monnerot in the Aures and of the pro-French kaid from M'Chouneche, Hadj Sadok, elicited strong emotion. But the attacks against the police stations, barracks, and industrial plants did not have the scope that the initiators of the November 1 attacks had hoped. In Algiers the net- work set in place was broken up by the police in less than two weeks. Only the Aures in Constantinois posed a real military problem: there, the "rebels" secured the cooperation of "bandits of honor" (in particular, the famous Grine Belkacem), who had been in the underground for years. There was also Great Kabylia, where several hundred men, trained in clandestine operations under the leadership of Amar Ouamrane and Krim BeIkacem, were ready for prolonged action.

On November 1 no one seriously thought that France had just entered a new war. The "events" made two columns in Le Monde. A single column in L'Express, dated November 6, violently denounced the "subversive schemes" of the Arab League and the old leader of the radical pro-independence cur- rent, Messali Hadj. Yet he was not the one behind the November 1 outburst; rather, it was other young leaders, in revolt against the French colonial pres- ence and the conservatism of their own party, which was torn apart by internal struggles.

The Men of November

On November I, 1954, an organization, heretofore unknown, claimed responsibility for all the military operations: the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). That "rebellion" was conducted internally by six men: Larbi Ben M'Hidi, Didouche Mourad, Rabah Bitat, Krim Belkacem, Mohammed Boudiaf, and Mostefa Ben Boulald. The acts outside Algeria, in Cairo, were spearheaded by Hocine A:it Ahmed, Ahmed Ben Bella, and Mohammed Khider. All were from a single organization, the Parti du Peuple Algerien/Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertes Democratiques (pPA-MTLD), which had nearly twenty thousand militants in its ranks. For several years, all had been involved in the political struggle championed by the party.

It was on the basis of a claim for the autonomy of a "culture, heir to a long and glorious past, " and for an entitlement transmitted by history, that this movement worked to legitimate the demand for independence. In that sense, Arab Islamism appeared as a return to the source of ancestral ethics. A centralizing movement, it tended to struggle against particularism, especially linguistic particularism. This was clear in 1949 when the advocates of Berber culture, denounced as "Berber materialists," were discharged from their leadership posts. The PPA-MTLD championed a strategy of scission with the French presence. Its young activists, advocates of armed struggle, laid the foundations for the 1'1..N, and clashed violently with the old head of the PPA-MTLD, Messali Hadj, who founded the Mouvement National Algerien, or MNA (National Algerian Movement) in December 1954.

Within the leadership of this "activist" current, the youngest person (Omar Belouizdad) was twenty-six in 1954, the oldest (Mostefa Ben Boulald) was thirty-seven. Only one of these leaders, Mohammed Khider (age forty-two in 1954), who joined the group on the eve of November 1, was familiar with Etoile Nord-Africaine, the first pro-independence organization in 1936; he had been involved in the political holdup of the Oran post office, organized in 1949 by the OS (the branch of the PPA-MTLD charged with paving the way for a military insurrection, which was broken up by the French police in 1950-1951). This fact is not without importance. What united these men was that all of them, without exception and whatever their age, had been part of the OS, and had had to flee and hide to avoid repression. The orientation they gave to transmitting the legacy bequeathed by the pioneers of nationalism can be summed up in their recourse to direct action. Many activist cadres in the PPA who were called upon to playa "his- toric" role in the subsequent conduct of the Algerian revolution came from important families, themselves affected by the general downward mobility at work in Algerian society.

Hocine Alt Ahmed, born on August 20, 1926, in A1n-el-Hammam (formerly Michelet) came from a very important line of Marabouts from Kabylia. Larbi Ben M'Hidi, born in 1923, in the douar of El Kouahi in Constantinois, near A1n M'Lila, came from a family of Marabout notables from the high plains of Constantinois. Mohamed Boudiaf, born on June 23, 1919, in M'Sila in Hodna, was from a well-off family that had lost its status as a result of decolonization. Krim Belkacem, born on December 14, 1922, in the douar of Alt Yahia near Dra-EI-Mizan in Kabylia, was the son of a village policeman, Hocine Krim, who was eventually named a minor kaid. Extremely well known, these four leaders joined the PPA during World War II and rapidly obtained significant responsibilities. They had all gone to school: Alt Ahmed passed the first part of the baccalauriat (high school degree); Boudiaf went to the secondary school of Bou Sa ada; Larbi Ben M'Hidi studied the dramatic arts; and Krim Belkacem earned his certificat d'itUdes (primary,school diploma). These studies ended when the men entered politics and went underground.

Although the sons of important rural families were affected by pro-independence propaganda, there were also nationalists who belonged to the category of notables, beginning with the interwar period. These are particularly unusual examples, but they deserve to be pointed out as well, since they indicate the shift in the rural areas from a situation of resistance to foreigners to modern national feeling. A very well-known leader, Mostefa Ben Boula1d, is a telling example of the presence of that social category within the leadership of the pro-independence current. Born in 1917, he was the son of small landowners. He succeeded his father and became a miller by profession. Mobilized in 1939, he fought in the French army, was discharged after being wounded in 1942, then remobilized in 1943-1944 in Khenchela. As a chief warrant officer returned to civilian life, he became president of me guild of fabric merchants in me Aures, and established a small flour mill in Lambessa. At mat time, he obtained a license to operate a line of buses between Arris and Batna. The results of his life journey are well known: a member of me central committee of me MTLD and founding member, in Apri11954, of me CRUA (comite Revolutionnaire pour l'Unite et l'Action), which would give rise to me FLN, he died in combat in 1956.

The new political activists, living in the midst of varied activities, suspecting they might be able to escape their social conditions through me studies they had undertaken or me positions they occupied, discovered different ways of life, different possibilities for political action. They were more "critical," more "rational" man me veterans of me 1930s nationalist struggle; me search for a political shortcut predominated in their analyses. Slow, patient collective work seemed outdated to them. For them, the turning point of 1945, marked by me Setif massacre, served more as an accelerator man as a revelation, and precipitated me eclipse of me group built up around Messali Hadj in me interwar period. Hadj, who had been me impetus behind me first pro-independence organizations, was still me true charismatic leader of me national Algerian movement (Stora 1986). He was blind to me emergence of people no longer believing in classic political action (strikes, petitions, demonstrations). The "activists" in his party recommended recourse to armed struggle to escape me colonial impasse.

Reforms and Repression

"Algeria has been French for a long time. Therefore, secession is inconceivable." So asserted Premier Pierre Mendes-France on November 13 before the National Assembly. Minister of the Interior Francois Mitterrand added: "My policy will be defined by these three words: will, steadfastness, presence." As for the political bureau of the PCF, it declared on November 9 "that it could not approve of the recourse to individual acts likely to play into the hands of the colonialists, if, in fact, they were not fomented by them." Nevertheless, Communist militants, particularly in the Aures, joined the underground forces of November. Trotskyists and anarchist militants, very much in the minority, were the only ones in France to pronounce themselves resolutely in favor of Algerian independence.

How was it possible to believe, in that autumn of 1954, that this was a mere flare-up of violent crime, of isolated individual acts? The governor of Algeria, Roger Leonard in Algiers, and Jean Vaujour, the director of Surete (the criminal investigation bureau), had warned the government of the imminence of an insurrection. On November 20, 1954, Tunisia had its right to internal autonomy recognized. Contacts had already been made to re- turn the sultan of Morocco to his throne. The Arab, world was under the influence of the Nasserian revolution. The decisiveness of the official declarations concealed only poorly the tremors that were shaking the colonial empire. But, as far as Algeria was concerned, no one as yet in the French political class imagined any possibility of independence. The French government proved to be very steadfast in its repressive will. On November 5, 1954, the main pro-independence organization, the MTLD, was dissolved, its leaders ar- rested, and hundreds of militants forced to go underground. Most went on to swell the ranks of the first guerrilla groups. Military reinforcements were sent to Algeria. On February 2, 1955, in the Chamber, Francois Mitterrand declared:

Before the government was formed, that is, before mid-June 1954, there were 49,000 men in Algeria, including three companies of state security police (CRS). Before November 1, that is, in the first phase when, under the premier's authority, I was responsible for the Algerian affair, 75,000 men were sent as reinforcements. After November 1,26,000 were sent to Algeria, not including the goums trained on site. The figure today is 83,400 men. It is therefore 60 percent higher than what the government found in Algeria when it came to power.

On January 15, 1955, the main leader of the FLN in Constantinois, Didouche Mourad, was killed during a skirmish with the French army. A month later, on February II, the FLN leader in the Aures, Mostefa Ben Boulald, was arrested. But the sending of reinforcements and the military operations were accompanied by deep reforms. In January 1955, the government elaborated a program for Algeria:

-the creation in Algiers of a school of administration to give Muslim Algerians access to posts of responsibility in the public sector: of two thousand employees in the general government of Algeria, eight were Muslims; only 15 percent of Muslim children attended school; there was one European student for every 227 European residents of Algeria and one Muslim student for every 15,342 Muslim residents;

-a reduction of the gap between Algerian and European salaries: the gross income of the European in Algeria was twenty-eight times that of the Muslim;

-the initiation of major public works projects: entire zones had no roads, city hall offices, or post offices;

-the recognition of the state of economic poverty of many regions of Algeria and the difficulties caused by very strong demographic pressure: there were 850,000 under- or unemployed for an active population of 2,300,000 potential wage earners.

This program was little discussed, and for good reason. On February 5, 1955, the government of Pierre Mendes-France was overthrown. At five o'clock in the morning, at the end of a debate on North Africa, the result of the vote came in. By a margin of 319 to 273, the deputies delivered a no- confidence vote to the government. The right, the centrists, and the Communists applauded. The Catholics in the Mouvement Republicain Populaire, or MRP (popular Republican Movement, a centrist party) participated in that downfall, an attitude that the weekly Timoignage Chritien did not understand, judging that "we have concluded seven months marked by unquestionable innovation" (February 4, 1955).

Jacques Soustelle went to Algiers the day after the fall of the Mendes cabinet, which was replaced by that of Edgar Faure on February 11. The new governor of Algeria, an ethnologist and a Gaullist, had a justified reputation as an open, liberal man. He had the courage to include in his cabinet Major Vincent Monteil, a great Arabist, and the ethnologist Gennaine Tillion, a specialist on the Aures. Jacques Soustelle was poorly received by those in charge in Algiers. This Cevennes native of Protestant origin was baptized "Ben Soussan" [the implication was that he was Jewish-trans.) Was every- thing still possible in Algeria, even though the FLN had officially been recognized at the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations in April? Jacques Soustelle met with the leaders of the ulama (religious reformists) and with Ferhat Abbas, who had his movement (founded in 1946), the Union Democratique du Manifeste Algerien or UDMA (Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto), participate in the district elections of April 1955.

Until mid-1955, Soustelle labored to understand the discontent of the Muslim population. His trips to the Aures and Kabylia revealed to him the under-administration of the regions agitated by Algerian nationalism, especially the Aures, and the futility of the military deployments, which en- circled nothing more than a vacuum. In March 1955, he asked the government for the right to adapt legislation to the conditions of that war, which still did not dare speak its name. On March 31, 1955, the National Assembly voted in a state of emergency that strengthened the powers of the army in the limited zone of the Aures, and authorized the displacement of "contaminated" populations to "settlement camps." A first camp opened in Khenchela, where one hundred and sixty people were confined. On May 19, the government recalled several annual contingents of soldiers. The army launched major sweeping operations in the second half of 1955. But these measures did not weaken the "rebellion." The authority of the FLN was demonstrated by the district elections in April: the abstention order it issued was followed by 60 percent of the voting population in Constantinois.

Jacques Soustelle promised "integration" and reforms. It was too late: everything fell apart on August 20, 1955, the anniversary of the deposing of the sultan of Morocco. The "phony war" ended, and the Algerian War began in earnest.

posted by Steve @ 2:30:00 PM

2:30:00 PM

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